Sunday, August 19, 2007

Mysterious Skin

Movie name: Mysterious Skin
Year of release: 2004
Director: Greg Araki
Stars: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Brady Corbet, Elisabeth Shue, Michelle Trachtenberg, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Bill Sage, Jeffrey Licon
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

Mysterious Skin presents a story about child abuse and the consequences it has on two young kids lives. Greg Araki has built a strong story, filled with great acting and a terrific soundtrack.

Greg Araki, the American filmmaker that made a name for himself out of underground and terminally cool films during the 90’s, matured to an accomplished filmmaker with “Mysterious Skin”. Araki became known in the 90’s as part of the new queer cinema label, alongside such luminaries as Todd Haynes (who released “Poison” in 1991), Tom Kalin (who released “Swoon” equally in 1991) and Rose Troche (who released “Go Fish” in 1994). With his initial films, namely “The Living End”, “Totally Fucked Up”, Araki showed a more risqué side to the way that homosexuality was being portrayed on screen (which can be checked in Norman René’s “Longtime Companion” and Bill Sherwood’s “Parting Glances”, to name but a few). During the mid nineties Araki further developed his style, with films like “Nowhere” and “The Doom Generation”, eventually reaching what many considered to be a “block” in his universe. “Mysterious Skin” premiered in the Venice Film Festival in 2004, and went to the Sundance film festival and ended up on many lists of the year’s best films of 2005.
“Mysterious Skin” starts by showing the lives of two children, in the early 80’s, Neil and Brian, both 8 years old. As narrators, they reveal what is happening in their lives. Brian believes he has been abducted by aliens, which may explain time gaps and his nose bleedings, whereas Neil explains his fascination for one of his mother’s boyfriends and also his baseball coach. The coach ends up being a catalyst in the lives of these children – he abuses Neil, who as a teenager becomes a hustler, much to the disregard of his mother (who is oblivious to what surrounds her). Neil ends up leaving his hometown (Kansas) to go to New York, where he continues his hustling ways. The two youngsters eventually reunite, and talk about their shared childhood, what effectively happened and what molded them to the people they are.
Greg Araki has managed to create with “Mysterious Skin” a story that is simultaneously surprising and difficult, but also delicate and tender. The film could’ve easily been made just for shock value with the early scenes of the sexual abuse from the coach (very well played by Bill Sage, a usual face in Hal Hartley films), instead Araki goes for a more subdued perspective, showing everything from the kids point of view, that gives it a whole fantasy-surreal kind of look.
As the audience accompanies the growth of the main characters, it becomes apparent the way both of them have dealt with their memories. Where Neil becomes a hustler, deriving pleasure from his anonymous sexual encounters, Brian represses whatever has happened to him and becomes convinced that he has been a victim of alien abduction – for that purpose he tracks a girl that he feels also has been through the same, Avalyn. As the story progresses and both characters evolve, we see that behind the coldness of Neil there is a heart wanting to be touched, the same way that behind Brian’s aloofness and desexualized existence, there is a pain and a need to understand what has happened to him.
The script from Gregg Araki is incredibly precise in it’s trajectory, giving the audience a feeling of closure as we reach the end – which in turn presents itself in much of the same fantasy/fable tone as the film started.
All the actors excel in their roles, starting with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a former child star who has indeed come a long way (he was in “The Juror” with Demi Moore and reached celebrity as part of the cast of “Third Rock from the Sun”), who plays Neil with a fierce intensity, showing his abandon but also his innocence. Brady Corbet does a good job of playing the innocent and lost Brian – his thick glasses seem to hide more than meets the eye. Finally Elisabeth Shue proves once again how great she is when she has a chance to expand beyond her “good girl” roles. As she did in Mike Figgis “Leaving Las Vegas”, she creates a woman whose own needs make her oblivious to everything that surrounds her, including her own son. It’s a small role, but one that she really captures perfectly.
“Mysterious Skin” is a film that urgently needs to be seen – it’s possessed of a beauty that will stay with you. Hopefully Gregg Araki’s career will keep on surprising just as it has done so far.